Six cars that flopped, and six concepts that should have made the leap to production.
After a five-year absence, the legendary Ford Thunderbird nameplate returned for 2002 as a rounded tribute to the original T-Birds of the 1950s. It certainly appealed to an older crowd that appreciated the look, but younger buyers weren't into the styling that resembled a used soap bar.
Under the skin, the 'Bird had promise. It rode on the same rear-drive chassis as the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type (Jaguar was owned by Ford at the time) and used a version of the Jag V-8, making 252 hp paired to a five-speed automatic. That sounds like a recipe for a relatively exciting car. But instead of firming the chassis for fun back-road driving, Ford tuned it for a relaxing ride. This was a real Palm Beach cruiser—especially when painted in one of several retro pastel hues. Unfortunately, it was not the hot seller Ford had hoped for.
Just as the Thunderbird was a softer take on the 1950s T-Bird, the SSR was an oddly proportioned remake of a 1950s Chevy pickup truck. It was supposed to deliver one part truck, one part muscle car, and one part open-air convertible. The trouble was the SSR (Super Sport Roadster) was not a good representation of any of these genres. It used a Chevy Trailblazer SUV chassis instead of one meant for a car or a pickup truck—so it offered no real hauling capacity. Worse, that chassis just wasn't sporty.
The SSR's folding hardtop was prone to wind noise, and the hard tonneau cover over the bed often leaked. The cabin was very tight, with little space for anything except the two passengers, and not even a single cup holder to be found. Under the hood was the same 300-hp 5.3-liter V-8 that came in the Trailblazer. But with nearly 4800 pounds of curb weight, the early SSRs were not particularly quick. In 2005 GM fitted a 390-hp version of the Corvette's LS2 6.0-liter V-8 into the engine bay of the SSR, and that powerhouse actually made the funky truck fun. Yet even the extra horsepower couldn't tempt enough buyers for this nearly $50,000 toy.
To inject a little excitement into the long-suffering Plymouth brand, Chrysler developed a rather radical retro hot rod for 1997. The Prowler was one of the first retro cars of this era, and . In that first year only a handful were built. Every one of them was purple, equipped with a pokey 215-hp 3.5-liter V-6 from Chrysler's front-drive family sedans. After skipping a production year, the 1999 Prowler arrived with more colors and a 38-hp boost in oomph.
It just wasn't enough. Here was a great-looking, concept-car-come-to-life hot rod that had no V-8 engine beneath its fenders and no manual transmission either. What good is a hot rod that can't light up the tires into a white haze of burned rubber? The Prowler was still somewhat fun to drive just because of its radical looks, but the suspension was so rough you wouldn't be having fun for long—especially after your morning coffee resting in the cup holder had spilled on your pants after a mild pothole. And trunk space was so limited that Chrysler actually offered a $5000 trailer option to haul your gear. Weird.
Besides having one of the worst names in the automotive industry, the Chevy Heritage High Roof (HHR) had another strike against it from the beginning: It was a total copycat of the successful 2000–2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser. It's not just that the HHR was GM's take on the PR Cruiser—it was designed by the same person (Bryan Nesbitt) and championed by the same auto industry bigwig (Bob Lutz) once both men had migrated from Chrysler to GM. And like the PT, the was based on the bones of a compact sedan. In this case, it was GM's Delta front-drive architecture also used in the Chevy Cobalt.
The HHR sold well but never came close to the runaway hit numbers the PR Cruiser did in its peak years. More importantly, the HHR didn't achieve the same kind of cult following among its owners. Love it or loathe it, the PT Cruiser will be the retro wagon that's remembered.
The original Pontiac GTO pioneered a template for the classic 1960s muscle car. In 2004, three decades after Pontiac's last GTO (which by then had become a lame-duck Chevy Nova clone), the brand decided to revive the nameplate with a new one. Potential buyers were waiting for a modern beast with a retro edge, something like what Ford did with Mustang in the 2000s. But the GTO looked like a bloated Chevy Cavalier, not a hard-edged, heart-pumping take on the 1960s classic.
Beneath that snoozy sheet metal was a solid car. The GTO was essentially a rebadged Australian Holden Monaro, with a 350-hp Corvette-derived 5.7-liter V8, a six-speed manual, and a chassis that was a blast to drive. A 400-hp 6.0-liter V-8 arrived in 2005. But power was never the GTO's problem—styling was. A Sport Appearance Package tried to add some visual excitement, but the new GTO's looks just never found a passionate audience.
Between the SSR and the GTO, GM learned its lesson with retro muscle. In 2010, the all-new Chevy Camaro arrived wearing the perfect retro design, and it's been a huge success ever since.
The Chrysler Crossfire concept that debuted in 2001 was a cool retro sports car that aped just enough from the Audi TT and blended it with historic Chrysler designs and an Art Deco aesthetic. But here was a concept that did not elegantly make the leap from show floor to showroom. Instead, the Chrysler Crossfire became a poster car for the misguided and mismanaged marriage between Daimler (Mercedes-Benz) and Chrysler in the late 1990s.
The company wanted customers to believe that DaimlerChrysler brought together the best of American and German engineering and design into its cars. The idea for the Crossfire, company executives proclaimed in a lavish auto show unveiling, was to show "where Route 66 meets the Autobahn." But, in truth, the Crossfire concept's elegant proportions and design were adapted and shrink-wrapped to fit onto a retired version of the Mercedes-Benz SLK's chassis. It looked awkward, and it was cramped inside. Performance was respectable, especially the rare SRT-6 model—a mechanical copy of the Mercedes-Benz SLK 32 AMG. But the ride was rough, especially on that model, and sales were slow. Today the weird Crossfire is generally unloved by both American and German car fans.
A visit to any of today's collector-car auctions proves that the classics selling for big money go far beyond traditional 1960s and early '70s muscle cars. Hot buys extend even to the SUVs that shared the showroom with those cars, and one of the hottest is the 1966–1977 Ford Bronco. Ford appeared to be ahead of the curve in 2004, when it unveiled a retro-modern Bronco. This brilliant silver concept looked as though it had been carved from a single hunk of aluminum. It was stunning and perfectly delivered the feel of those early trucks but in a modern wrapper. Under the skin, the concept foreshadowed today's light-duty-diesel trend. The 128-hp four-cylinder turbo diesel developed 244 lb-ft of torque way down at 1800 rpm, and was paired to a six-speed automatic. A production version of the Bronco could have been a serious hit for Ford—and could have provided the company with a great Jeep Wrangler competitor. Not to be.
The 1978 BMW M1 was not only an iconic supercar of the 1970s and early 1980s, but it also helped to introduce the high-performance BMW M division. The M1 was powered by BMW's legendary twin-cam, fuel-injected straight-six, an engine that would later appear in the 1988 BMW M5. And this supercar was styled by the legendary Italian design house Giugiaro.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the M1, BMW created the M1 Homage concept, which blended inspiration from the original with the simple and aggressive flares, scoops, and ducting of modern high-performance sports cars. The M1 Homage was quite possibly the coolest BMW concept to come from the manufacturer in a decade. It should have been pushed through for production—and if it had, today BMW would have a perfect competitor for cars like the Audi R8.
The Lincoln Motor Company hasn't found the same audience of luxury-and-performance buyers that Cadillac has. Modern Lincolns are merely redressed Fords that can't quite compete on the world stage with BMW, Lexus, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz. But the dark reality of Lincoln's showrooms could have been much brighter.
In 2001 Lincoln looked as though it was poised for a renaissance. The rear-drive Lincoln LS sedan beat the Cadillac CTS to market and was a strong BMW fighter. And the company's concepts hinted that more great cars were to come. The Continental Concept, unveiled to the media privately at Pebble Beach that summer, was a stunning retro revival of the early 1960s suicide-door Lincolns. Under that long hood was a 6.0-liter V-12; inside were luxury trappings suitable for a flagship sedan. The Continental Concept was reportedly green-lit for production, but reorganization at Ford meant it was sadly DOA.
The idea of a sporty station wagon dates back decades at Chevy. The iconic 1955–1957 Nomads, along with the original Corvette-based Nomad concept of 1954, inspired Chevy to build two Nomad concepts around the turn of the new millennium. The first one, which came in 1999, was perhaps was a little too retro. But the 2004 version might have been a real hit.
The 2004 concept was based on a stretched version of GM's Kappa architecture that underpinned the Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice roadsters. That meant the Nomad would have been a compact, rear-drive sports wagon—a practical, fun, and likely very affordable car. The concept used a 250-hp 2.2-liter turbocharged engine linked to a five-speed automatic, so the production car would have been quick. And the Nomad would have had room for four people and their luggage. It could have been a real hit for Chevy.
The success of the New Beetle in 1998 was most likely the major inspiration for VW to build a retro version of its other legendary vehicle—. The concept was unveiled at the 2001 North American International Auto Show and was instantly a hit. Here was a practical and unusually hip people mover that VW could finally use to break into the profitable U.S. minivan market. The concept was so well-received that VW soon announced it would bring a production version of the new Microbus to market. But a few years later the project was shelved. And instead of a producing a VW van that was true to its historic roots, the company entered into an agreement with Chrysler to rebadge a Town and Country minivan as the Routan. Too bad.
The 1966 Miura was the car that put Lamborghini on the map as a serious sports-car maker. Its innovative transverse midengine V-12 and incredibly slinky bodywork broke with the standards of the day. The Miura could be credited as the world's first modern supercar.
When the 2006 retro concept of the Miura was shown to the automotive media in Los Angeles, they were blown away. The concept was based on the chassis of the then-current Lamborghini Gallardo, with room for a V-12 (longitudinally mounted), so it was clearly designed with production in mind. It was assumed this car would become a limited-run production car to arrive two or three years later. But the word came down from Lamborghini brass that the company wouldn't build any retro production cars.